Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Flagged Eighth Notes

So this is a little rant/soapbox kind of post about the way that some people write choral music.  Some of these little pet peeves involve certain engraving styles used mostly during the last century.  Mostly it’s because we learned a better way, but just this week I got some music from this decade was still written in this old style.  What am I talking about and why am I so peeved about this?  It’s flagged eighth notes in choral music, and it’s a pain to read.

Back in the day, choral music was written with flagged eighth notes.  This was mainly to show that the music was syllabic in nature as opposed to melismatic (one syllable for multiple notes).  When melismas needed to be written, then engravers would beam those eighth notes to show which notes shared the same syllable.  While this made sense at the time, practically it was a nightmare for vocalists everywhere.  Most other music is written so that beams indicate groupings of subdivisions of the beats.  It’s much easier to read and makes sense when you need to quickly learn rhythms.  That’s how almost all of us learned to read music.  Then when we move to choral music and those rules involving beamed eighth notes are gone, we’re confused.  Flagged eighth notes are also harder on the eye and easy to get lost in.

Flagged eighth notes are of the devil and very difficult to read. A lot of older choral music is written this way.

Today, we beam all our eighth notes to show the rhythmic groupings rather than the syllabic divisions.  It’s much easier to sight read and it’s consistent with instrumental music (that most of us learn on).  When multiple notes are sung on the same syllable (melismas) the notes are slurred.  It’s similar to the way string music is written to indicated how many notes are on the same bow, or wind music to indicate how many notes have the same attack.  It’s much easier to read (especially at first glance) and life is so much easier for the singer, who, let’s face it, doesn’t have the best rhythm anyway.

Beamed eighth notes are much easier to read and understand.

My point is, why do people still write and engrave their music the other way?  Singers read the music much worse, it takes up unnecessary time trying to figure out and in the end, we usually just try and beam it ourselves with our pencils (making an even messier score).  I can understand that some folks writing scholarly editions of older music need it to be a close to original as possible and choose to use this approach.  However, if you’re making performance editions of this earlier music, it needs to be written with the modern performer in mind.

So, don’t let your friends write flagged eighth notes in their choral music.

Also, another short little pet peeve:  When people write “div.” (divide) and “unis.” (unify) into their choral music when it divides.  This is practice carried over from writing string music where it’s possible for one instrument to play multiple notes via double/triple/quadruple stops.  These marks are used to indicate where the composer whats the section to divide rather than play a double/triple/quadruple stop.

Redundant "div." and "unis." markings

In choral music though, this is absolutely redundant seeing as unless you’re this guy, you can’t sing two different notes at once.  Of course we are going to divide!

Anyway, I’m off my soapbox now.


2 thoughts on “Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Flagged Eighth Notes

  1. Matt,

    I’m glad that you wrote this, Matt. Something needed to be formally said. When I saw the examples you posted, I thought to myself, “Gross!”


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